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For lives spent online, estate planning must go digital

Florida residents are increasingly spending their lives online. They communicate through e-mail accounts, social media accounts, personal blogs and other means of maintaining an online presence. They do much of their banking and bill-paying online and store their music collections and photos in the so-called cloud. All of this digital material can be convenient and fun, but as the saying goes for physical possessions, you can't take it with you. It's time people started thinking about their digital assets when they are drafting estate planning documents.

The first step is to think of online accounts as digital assets and begin listing them among an estate's assets, along with a home, a car, family heirlooms, investments and bank accounts. Many people come up with a detailed will listing which nephews and nieces get which end tables that have sentimental value, but that neglects to ensure that one's children have the password to get access to priceless family photos that are stored online.

There's also the question of online bill-paying services. Many people have set up online accounts to pay some or all of their monthly bills through automatic withdrawals from their bank accounts. But if the payor should become suddenly incapacitated or die, it can be difficult for loved ones to figure out how to stop or adjust the payments. A modernized estate plan should make this easier.

Of course, consumers aren't the only ones having trouble keeping up with technological changes. The law, too, hasn't figured out exactly how to handle all kinds of transfers of digital assets from one generation to the next. There is heated debate going on in the legal community about whether one can legally transfer digital property like e-books or music files bought online. There's no problem in transferring books, CDs, DVDs or other tangible items, but services that sell digital files often note in their terms of service that any kind of transfer from one person to another is forbidden.

Florida residents hoping to transfer digital assets should get help investigating the applicable laws. It would be a shame to have the remnants of a life spent online vanish into the cloud.

Source: Times Herald-Record, "Estate plan should have digital-assets contingency," Bonnie Kraham, April 25, 2013

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